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Exonerated Hmong Refugee Yeng Lee Comes Home

July 22, 2022 News

For Immediate Release: July 22, 2022

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Exonerated Hmong Refugee Yeng Lee Comes Home

After serving 23 years for a crime he didn’t commit, Lee walks out of San Quentin State Prison

Residents, elected leaders call on Gov. Newsom to support VISION Act (AB 937) and end family separation

SACRAMENTO – As Californians up and down the state organize this week to protect people like Phoeun You and Salesh Prasad from ICE deportation after they served their time in prison and were granted parole for their transformation and service, community members are welcoming home today Yeng Lee (who goes by Lee), a Hmong refugee and Sacramento resident.

In May, Lee was exonerated by a judge after serving over 23 years for a crime he did not commit. He was supposed to be released from San Quentin State Prison on Monday, but due to clerical errors by the state, the prison refused to let him go home. Until this afternoon, Lee and his family were also afraid California would still transfer him to ICE, a practice that would end with the VISION Act. The bill has passed the Assembly and two Senate committees and awaits a vote by the full Senate this August.

“It’s a feeling like nothing else to be able to be back with my community,” said Yeng Lee. “I am grateful to be going home today but I know I’m not alone in enduring the horrors of wrongful convictions and ICE targeting. No one deserves this, especially the threat of indefinite ICE detention and deportation. Justice would mean stopping ICE transfers for good.”

Lee came to the U.S. when he was a year old as a refugee from the Viet Nam War. The Hmong people, including Lee’s family, were recruited by the U.S. government and fought alongside the U.S. military in the war. For those actions, they were targets of persecution and were forced to flee their homes.

Like many Southeast Asian refugee youth growing up in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, Lee lived in violent neighborhoods and poverty. He gravitated towards gangs for protection and belonging. At the age of 19, Lee was held responsible for the actions of a passenger in the backseat of a car he was driving with other people. One passenger inside his car recognized a rival gang member who had harmed someone in their family. Gunshots were fired from the backseat and a person was tragically killed. Lee was sentenced to life without parole.

While incarcerated, he became a leader at San Quentin focusing on his and others’ service and transformation. In May, as a result of California’s criminal justice reform legislation, a judge reviewed Lee’s case, vacated the convictions, and ordered his immediate release from prison. Yet, Lee had been told ICE could still come and detain him unlawfully. Through community and legal advocacy, Lee was reunited today with his family and community.

“By recognizing the injustices of our criminal legal system and granting clemency to community members like Yeng Lee and Sandra Castaneda, Governor Newsom is taking action that makes us proud to be Californians,” said Hien Nguyen with Asian Prisoner Support Committee. “But we can’t trust ICE to act fairly or justly, whether it’s trying to detain Lee or keeping Sandra detained in defiance of an immigrant court ruling. To fully embrace our state’s values, Governor Newsom and CA legislators need to pass the VISION Act and help all immigrant and refugee families reunite.”

Background on VISION Act

Last month, marking one year since California aided ICE’s tragic deportation of domestic violence survivor Gabby Solano, California parents, community groups, faith leaders, union workers, re-entry counselors, other residents in the ICE Out of CA coalition, and state legislators rallied in Sacramento for the VISION Act. A poll conducted by UC San Diego’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center last year found that two-thirds of voters back the VISION Act. The bill is co-sponsored by 25 California legislators and supported by the California Democratic Party, Black Legislative Caucus, Latino Legislative Caucus, and the API Legislative Caucus; over 180 organizations; Black Lives Matter-California; the Law Enforcement Action Partnership; veterans groups; and several key labor unions and federations, along with numerous Jewish organizations and Rabbis.

At least eight counties in California have already ended the unjust practice of transferring immigrant community members to ICE, as have Illinois, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.